It would do parents and therapists well, whether the therapist delivers therapy face-to-face or via teletherapy, to better understand the source of anxiety, depression, and addiction that their children are suffering. Perhaps a place to begin is to become familiar with an eye-opening study conducted some 20 years.

Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda launched a large-scale epidemiological study of 17,000 adults in 1995 designed to search for connections between childhood experiences and their health records as adults.  

The results of this study shook the mental health world. Practically two-thirds of those individuals in the study had suffered at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE)—a term Felitti and Anda invented to describe those unpredictable, chronic stress-inducing, that some kids unfortunately experience.

These adverse experiences ranged from having a parent who was either an addict, alcoholic or depressed; parental death or divorce; being bullied or some other form of being humiliated; or being either physically, emotionally or sexually abused. The commonality of these traumas was that they were more destructive than the typical challenges that most of us experience as we grow up.

But beyond the sheer number of children who suffered these experiences was the nearly direct correlation between the number adverse childhood experiences and the ability to accurately predict the amount of medical care that the same child would require as an adult.

  • Those who had suffered from four categories of ACEs were twice as likely to contract cancer in adulthood than those who had not ACEs in their past.
  • For women, the risk of becoming hospitalized with an autoimmune disease jumped 20% with each ACE.
  • Anyone who had an ACE score of 4 was more than 400% more likely to be afflicted with depression than an individual with an ACE score of 0.
  • Those with an ACE score of at least 6 had a reduced life space of nearly 20 years.

For years neuroscientists across the country have been analyzing and interpreting the data of ACE Study to yield an entirely new understanding of that elusive brain-body connection. Taken down to the biochemical level, these scientists have shown how childhood stress impacts cells, DNA, and the brain resulting in life-altering changes as an adult.

1. Shifting Epigenetically

Children suffering ACE showed genetic differences that went beyond affecting the stress response, but also genetic changes responsible for a wide array of diseases found in adults. These findings seem to negate the long-held distinctions between what is considered “physical” disease and what is “mental” or “emotional.”

The child who is consistently thrust into stress-inducing situations is subjected to a physiological response that shifts her into overdrive. This constant stress ultimately compromises her ability to respond appropriately and effectively to future stressors even years later.  In neuroscience, this is known as gene methylation.

Methylation is when small chemical markers adhere to the genes responsible for regulating the stress response, compromising their effectiveness. When the function of these genes is altered, the genes resets the stress response on “high” for life, promoting inflammation and disease.  The consequence is a predisposition to several chronic conditions, including autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, and depression.

2. Altering the Shape and Size of the Brain

MRI studies show that there is a direct relationship between a high ACE score and a reduction of the gray matter in vital areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, the seat of decision-making and self-regulatory skills, and the amygdala, or fear-processing center.

Also, scientists have discovered that chronic brain stress causes the release of a hormone that shrinks the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is that area of the brain responsible for processing emotion and memory and managing stress.

As a result, those whose brains have been altered by their Adverse Childhood Experiences are generally more likely to become adults who will over-react to stressors that others consider minor and handle with relative ease.

3. Connectivity in the Brain

Children who have experienced chronic childhood adversity have weaker neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, compromising several functions of the brain.

Girls, in particular, displayed weaker connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The relationship of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala plays a crucial role in determining how emotionally reactive a person is to those regular occurrences that happen in daily life, and how likely they have perceived these events as stressful.

What’s more, girls with these compromised neural connections were at a higher risk for developing anxiety and depression in later adolescence. This may partially explain why females suffer from mood disorders nearly twice as often as males at that age.

Hope After ACE

All of this science can be overwhelming, especially for parents and therapists. But the good news is that just as the understanding of how childhood adversity impacts the brain is growing, so too is the understanding of how better parenting and mental health therapy delivered either face-to-face or through teletherapy can help children heal.